My oldest and youngest seem to hate each other a large portion of the time. Of course they do not hate each other, it just seems that way. Frequently the situation plays out where JT asks JP if he can play with a particular toy because it is his turn. JP rejects JT’s request out of hand, just because it is JT asking for it. The situation gets worse when JA asks to play with the toy and JP is more than happy to let him play with it. JT will angrily protest that it is not fair and it is his turn. That is when the fight starts and does not end until a grown up intervenes. As it turns out JT is correct and it is his right to play with the toy at this point and it is within his rights to protest not being given the opportunity to play with the toy. This will almost universally result in a conversation between the intervening parent and the kids where it is said that all of the fuss could have been avoided if only JP had decided to be nice to JT. The issue at play here is both one of rights and of hospitality.
In a world consumed by rights; human rights, women’s rights, gun owner rights (in the US), indigenous peoples rights, etc. is it possible that we are missing out on the basic kindness that is interpersonal hospitality? It is not that rights are a bad thing at all, in fact most claims of rights trace their roots to something that is tied to something basic in humanity. And fighting for rights is not bad either, when not freely provided the fight to see them observed is a good and at times righteous act. The issue is that having to fight for them is the result of someone not providing the space to allow the consumer of said rights the space to exercise them.
In the essay The Religion of Christianity and The Religion of Human Rights Nick Spencer argues that without a root in faith – and in particular Christianity – the concept of human rights collapses upon itself.i This essay is part of the series of essays compiled as The Evolution of the West, How Christianity has Shaped Our Values, so it is not surprising the argument being made is centered on Christianity. I think that Spencer is correct that human rights minus a belief in something larger than humanity will eventually collapse upon itself. I think that he missed out on a crucial point that rights are only necessary when a portion of humanity has chosen to not provide space for another portion of humanity.
Rights and hospitality are two sides of the same street. There is a level of natural hospitality that is willing to provide space for the other. Take women’s rights for instance. I grew up with three sisters, there was never a point growing up that I did not think my sisters could do something as well as me because they are girls. It was not until someone informed me that men are better than women at whatever that my being superior because of my maleness even entered my brain. In essence I grew up with a willingness to provide the space for my sisters to be every bit as good as me. The need for women’s rights comes about when a portion of society has decided that the space provided for women to be as (or more) capable than a man needs to be removed. It is at that point that rights need to be declared. Rights are forced hospitality (which is an oxymoron, just go with it). When we declare that no one shall be discriminated on the basis of gender, we are forcing open a space where all genders are able to operate in that space. The question that needs to be asked then, is why was that space initially closed off?
Declaring rights and enforcing them is good, but the hard work that needs to be done is helping the ones resistant to those rights to understand where and when the space was closed off. This sort of work is hard and requires more than lip service to be lasting. But when the work is done well the right, while philosophically correct, is no longer in need of enforcement and that needs to be our goal.
i Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West, How Christianity has Shaped Our Values, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox 2014), 138.